SOMERVILLE — Regional School Unit 12 could lose nearly one-quarter of its students and its only high school next year, depending on the outcome of a Nov. 5 vote in Wiscasset.

Wiscasset will vote on a proposal to separate from the RSU and return to operating its own school district next July, as the town did before consolidation in 2009.

Wiscasset is the largest town in RSU 12, which also includes Chelsea, Palermo, Somerville, Westport Island, Whitefield and Windsor. Palermo, Westport Island and Windsor are also pursuing withdrawal, but Wiscasset is the first town to reach the final step, a referendum on a withdrawal agreement.

The agreement settles financial and contractual obligations between Wiscasset and the other towns and provides educational continuity for all students involved.

If Wiscasset votes to withdraw, the rest of RSU 12 would be affected financially and by the need to find a new “high school of record” that is obligated to educate any student living in the district.

RSU 12 sends students to several outside high schools, both public and private, but Wiscasset is the only one that cannot turn away or disinvite the RSU’s students.

Other than Alna and Westport Island, which do not have their own schools, the other RSU 12 towns send few students to Wiscasset. Last year, two students living in Wiscasset attended Whitefield Elementary, the only ones at another RSU 12 school.

If Wiscasset withdraws from RSU 12, students from the other towns can continue attending Wiscasset schools on a tuition-paying basis for 10 years.

Although there is little student movement between Wiscasset and the rest of the RSU, the staffs collaborate districtwide. Superintendent Howard Tuttle said Wiscasset staff members have helped RSU 12 with a literacy intitiative, alternative education and technology.

“There’s a lot of teacher talent in Wiscasset, and that’ll be a loss to RSU 12,” Tuttle said.

Financially, withdrawal is likely to be costly for Wiscasset and beneficial for the remaining towns, said Jerry Nault, a school board member from Windsor who chairs the board’s finance committee.

The agreement requires the town to pay a portion of expenses approved during the term of the RSU — including employee contracts and debt for projects such as the new Chelsea Elementary School — amounting to about $1.5 million.

In addition, Wiscasset would have to increase town spending on education by an estimated $1.4 million in the first year to maintain the status quo in staff, programming and facilities.

That’s because it costs more to operate Wiscasset’s three schools plus pay a share of RSU 12 districtwide costs than Wiscasset contributes to the RSU budget, Nault said.

Students living in Wiscasset make up slightly less than 25 percent of RSU 12’s enrollment, and the $6.1 million the town is contributing to the RSU this year makes up a similar percentage of the RSU’s revenue, about 23 percent.

But expenses for Wiscasset’s schools are higher — about $7.5 million, Nault said, or 28 percent of the district’s budget.

Because of the town’s high property valuation, Wiscasset brings in relatively little state subsidy for RSU 12 — only $1 million, or 10 percent of the total state assistance for the district.

In addition to the referendum on withdrawal, Wiscasset voters will be asked on the Nov. 5 ballot whether the town should pay the withdrawal costs by issuing $2 million in bonds or by taking the money from the town’s reserve fund.

Jeff Slack, a Wiscasset selectman who also served on the town committee that developed the withdrawal agreement, downplayed the cost concerns. Even if the town borrows to pay the withdrawal costs, he said, it could avoid raising taxes by drawing on the reserve fund to repay the bonds.

Money is not a major concern for people in Wiscasset who favor withdrawal, Slack said.

“If we vote to get out, we get our schools back, and then we can decide,” said Slack, paraphrasing arguments for withdrawal. “We’ll have our own school board and can kind of take the ball and run with it.”

Wiscasset once again would have control over leadership, curriculum, extracurricular activities and all other aspects of running a school district. A new Wiscasset school board also could make changes to reduce the town’s additional education costs below the $1.4 million estimate.

Slack said the town could close one of the three school buildings, all of which are under capacity.

RSU 12 also is considering that, but if Wiscasset withdraws and makes that decision for itself, the town would reap the entire financial benefit instead of sharing it with the rest of the RSU. In addition, if RSU 12 recommends closing a building but Wiscasset voters reject it, Wiscasset would be responsible for paying the entire cost of operating that school.

Some people in Wiscasset value the security and familiarity of RSU 12, Slack said.

“A lot of people feel we kind of know what our situation is if we stay in the RSU,” he said. “But until you get out, you don’t know what the town’s going to vote for to do, and what they’re not going to vote for to do.”

Slack is not publicly endorsing a side; he just wants voters to turn out. Even if a majority of voters favor withdrawal, it won’t take effect unless 834 people vote. Slack called that a “huge, astronomical” number, more than twice what’s typical for the town in off-year elections.

“I’d like to see the process either get a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, but have it be that the vote counts,” he said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]